The Prism and the Rainbow—A Christian Explains Why Evolution Is Not a Threat

by Joel W. Martin

The John Hopkins University Press | 2010 | 389 pages | $24.99

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

joel w martin

Joel W. Martin (b. 1955) is an American marine biologist and inveterate zoologist who’s currently Chief of the Division of Invertebrate Studies and Curator of Crustacea at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC). His main area of research is the morphology and systematics of marine decapod crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters and their relatives).

And he is a Christian and the author of The Prism & the Rainbow—A  Christian Explains Why Evolution Is not a Threat.

According to Dr. Jarvis Streeter, Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University, “Professor Martin has produced a concise yet comprehensive exposition of the fundamental issues in the current debates between (and among) Christians and evolutionary biologists on creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. It addresses all the key issues, both biological and theological, in a form and language easily accessible to Christian laity, including teens, and evaluates them fairly and with erudition.”

Whereas this evaluation of The Prism and the Rainbow is somewhat true, I was disappointed with it because I wanted more. To some extent, being a Christian in the modern world is to be pluralistic in one’s thinking, that is to say, to hold possibly contradictory views, side by side, but to keep them separate from one another. How can one reconcile, for example, the virgin birth with space travel in the modern era, the Christian concept of a triune God with man’s ability to clone life, or the edict that we should forgive others of all their offenses with the satisfaction gained in getting even? And so forth!

To be a Christian in the modern era means sometimes feeling a little out-of-step with the times and avoiding arguments with atheists who love to point out these inconsistencies. And yet if there is one area with which I have little trouble reconciling, and that is the theory of evolution.  To me, the idea that all forms of life on the planet evolved over time, a period of four billion years, gives me a greater sense of reverence for life. For goodness sakes, a human being’s life while in the womb repeats evolution from tadpole to human being.

The stories of creation, as twice recorded in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, were first recorded by the ancient Hebrews in about 950 BC, when its authors had no knowledge that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, nor of other instances of prehistoric life. And yet, interestingly, the creation stories they recorded follow evolution fairly accurately, especially if, as it says in the Koran (LXX:4), each day is thought of as the equivalence of a 100,000 or more years.

Darwin’s theory of evolution increases, not diminishes, my appreciation for the grandeur of the planet, from the Grand Canyon to the oceans teeming with life. What I wanted from Dr. Martin’s book was an elucidation of the things that I already believe.


Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) was an English naturalist who established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called “natural selection.” He published his theory with compelling evidence for evolution in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.  Knowing the maelstrom this theory was likely to unleash in the Christian world, Darwin delayed the publication of this book for about a dozen years.

Darwin's family tradition was nonconformist Unitarianism, his father and grandfather were freethinkers, and his baptism and boarding school were of the Church of England. When going to Cambridge to become an Anglican clergyman, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He learned John Herschel's science which, like William Paley's natural theology, sought explanations in laws of nature rather than miracles, and saw the adaptation of species as evidence of design. On board the survey ship, the Beagle, Darwin was quite orthodox and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality. He looked for "centres of creation" to explain distribution, and related the antlion found near kangaroos to distinct "periods of Creation."

But he was critical of the Bible as history and wondered why all religions should not be equally valid. In the next few years, while intensively speculating on geology and the transmutation of species, he gave much thought to religion and openly discussed this with Emma, his daughter, whose beliefs also came from intensive study and questioning.

The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was an American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating the state's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution.

Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never punished. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton to cover the big-name lawyers representing each side. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate for the Democrats, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial witnessed modernists, who said religion was consistent with evolution, against Fundamentalists, who claimed that the Word of God as revealed in the Bible trumped all human knowledge. The trial was thus both a religious and theological contest, and a trial concerning the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. Most people are familiar with the popular movie made about the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, with Spenser Tracy playing Clarence Darrow.

The teaching of science and evolution expanded, as Fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend failed in the court of public opinion. Since the publication of The Origin of Species in the later part of the 19th Century, and since the Scopes Trial 85 years ago, the debate between scientists and fundamentalists has waged on. Dr. Martin’s contribution to the discussion is to point out that religion and science are two entirely separate domains. He thinks the issue can be resolved by two very simple statements:

And yet I suspect this begs the question, for if all truth is one, then scientific evidence supporting evolution would not be at odds with creation stories. If some things like the length of a day are seen as symbolic, then they are not.

Many people understand evolution but balk at the thought that we are the products of evolution, that is to say, that we are descendants of apes.  Personally, I have no problem with the idea.

Dr. Martin seems to be an amiable and sincere man and is probably a very good scientist, but he’s not a writer, for he fails  to explore this important topic of evolution more thoroughly.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.

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